Mismanaging the milk contamination issue

This is my column today.

We all know that greed corrupts certain people into doing dastardly, even stupid things. As a result, there are people in this planet that could not be bothered by such things such as public health and safety, when these get in the way of business.

I’ve written in this space, for instance, about the unsanitary conditions that attend the production of certain food peddled in our streets. But the disregard for adequate sanitation of local businessmen behind the factories that produce dirty ice cream, taho, and other street food, sounds like kids’ play when compared to the abominable crime of the Chinese businessmen that deliberately spiked milk products with melamine. Melamine has been found to be a toxic substance that produces kidney stones among those who ingest it with their milk. At least five infants have died and thousands of children in China have been found to be suffering from ailments attributable to ingesting milk contaminated with melamine.

There are certain things about this public health scare that’s truly disturbing.

The product that’s been contaminated happens to be—if we really come to think about it—the stuff of life. Milk is the most natural nutrient found in the animal kingdom. It’s the stuff that nurtures every newborn mammal—from bats to humans. There is no single human being today that has not depended on milk for his or her survival during infancy. Thus, contaminating milk sounds like sacrilege.

I am not really a milk drinker; or at least not anymore today. But I did grow up in a family of heavy milk drinkers. Easy proof of that was that while growing up, we had a garden that featured a unique attraction: Plants growing in milk cans of uniform sizes painted white to hide the milk brand. My grandmother was fiercely loyal to this brand of milk and the weekly supply came in the form of a huge tin can which eventually ended up in the garden as a pot for her plants. I don’t like drinking milk anymore, but I do make sure that my kids and my aging parents take large quantities of the stuff because I know, just as everyone in this planet knows, that milk is the best source of nutrients.

Children and senior citizens also happen to be the main markets for milk and milk products. In fact, one of the things that riled me about this whole thing was that the contamination was first discovered in infant milk products. Of all the stakeholders in this planet, children are probably the most vulnerable; and infants particularly more so. They are defenseless and helpless and it is society’s job to ensure that they are adequately protected and nurtured. For crying out loud, even animals take on that responsibility.

While still a student, my sociology professor made us listen to a song by The Police that essentially argued that if the Russians loved their children too, then a total war wasn’t feasible. I know. It’s a simplistic way of framing an issue. Concern for children has not stopped the Taliban, or George Bush, or other despots to wage wars that invariably victimized children the most. Although it still does not justify it, at least certain wars that killed children are grounded on something more profound such as religion or sovereignty. This crime against children is grounded on nothing else but greed for profits.

So if the Chinese truly love their children then they should get to the heart of the problem and make the criminals pay for their crime. In addition to a prison sentence, perhaps they should be made to drink milk contaminated with melamine for the rest of their lives.

The country’s reaction to the milk contamination problem was thankfully swift. But as usual, the reaction, particularly that of government, seemed rash and imprudent; bordering on panic. As most of us know, panic is the result of the absence of preparation. Again, it does seem that our government agencies don’t have crisis management programs in place and are therefore really ill-equipped to handle them. This is really tragic when we consider that we are visited by all kinds of crises on a more regular basis.

The Bureau of Food and Drugs Administration “pulled out” certain milk products from supermarkets to test for melamine. The exact nature of BFAD’s action has been subject to so much clarification that one wonders if there’s anyone in BFAD with a thesaurus and therefore able to make distinctions between banning a product and simply testing it for melamine.

I caught one BFAD official explaining through a telephone interview on television that the pullout was not meant to suggest in any way that the products were laden with melamine. The Secretary of Health weighed in with his own explanations and directives. As can be expected, the companies that owned the brand names of the milk products that were in the BFAD list raised questions. Our politicians smelled an opportunity to promote themselves and therefore inserted themselves into the issue.

Only one thing is clear now. BFAD does not have the technology to do the tests quickly.
All this is typical in our country, of course. We try to pass off discourses as solutions, debate as effective responses, and panic as concern.

I can understand the alarm of the companies whose brands were in that dreaded list. Four milk product brands have since then been taken off it, but I doubt if the stigma will disappear as quickly. These were milk products that were manufactured in Australia or New Zealand, after all, not China. One wonders: Why were they in the list to begin with?

How certain media organizations “managed” the BFAD list issue was just as interesting. Anyone out there who still has doubts about the kind of power big advertisers have over certain media organizations need only to take a look at how certain media organizations and broadcasters deliberately did not mention certain brand names that were in the BFAD list in their newscasts and in their talk shows. These brand names are major advertisers. Let’s not forget that a large percentage of television ads are milk commercials.

Some media organizations and personalities make such a big to-do about their supposed independence and about how they are beholden to no one other than the public’s interests. We now have proof course that this is not absolutely true, particularly when business interests are at stake.

One talk show on the ABS-CBN News Channel did something even more appalling. Not only did they not mention the more recognizable brands in the list, they made jokes out of the Chinese brand names. They picked out the brand names that they thought were really funny or bizarre and made them the object of ridicule.


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